Did the Catholic Church help war criminals

Shortly after the end of the Second World War, an Austrian wandered into Rome looking for a Catholic prelate. He needed the help of a bishop he thought was named Hulda (actually Hudal). “I had no idea how one went about finding a bishop at the Vatican,” he confessed to the British journalist Gitta Sereny in 1972. “I arrived in Rome and walked across a bridge over the Tiber and suddenly found myself face to face with a former comrade.” His outlaw companion asked, “Are you on your way to see Hulda?”—a question that implied this bishop was known to be of help to people like them. After a short walk, the Austrian arrived at the episcopal residence he was seeking. “You must be Franz Stangl,” the bishop said, warmly holding out both his hands. “I was expecting you.”

Stangl had been commandant of the Sobibor and Treblinka death camps. Wanted for the murder of nearly a million Jews, he was desperately seeking to escape the clutches of Allied justice. He had come to the right man. Also an Austrian, Bishop Alois Hudal (1885–1963) was rector of the college in Rome known as the “Anima,” a seminary for German-speaking priests. He was also a profound sympathizer with National Socialism and someone dedicated to extending papal charity to “so-called” war criminals. These men, he thought, were “in many respects personally innocent, and had only been the executive organs of orders.” After finding Stangl a job at the German College, the bishop eventually supplied him with travel documents, a steamship ticket, and a factory job in Syria. Later, Stangl traveled to Brazil, where he would bring his wife and family. In Sao Paolo, he found work in a factory that manufactured, of all things, Volkswagens.

While it would be consoling to suppose this act of episcopal benevolence was an isolated incident, in fact, the deliverance of ex-Nazis, SS men, and known war criminals was repeated hundreds of times by Catholic prelates and priests. Their actions were not only known to diplomats in the highest echelons of the Vatican hierarchy, they were morally and financially supported by them—and, horrifyingly, supported by unknowing American Catholics and some of their all-too-knowing leaders as well.

With so much attention given to the conduct during the Shoah of the Catholic Church, the Vatican, and Pope Pius XII, there has been little attention paid to the crucial role played by men like Hudal in the immediate aftermath of the war. As it happens, a recently published book by another Austrian, the brilliant young scholar Gerald Steinacher, lays out in powerful, if lugubrious, detail how and why the Catholic church, through its personnel, financing, and aid from institutions, committees, and priests, protected Nazi war criminals. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, many new archives have been opened, lawyers have revived dormant investigations, and governments have established commissions to inquire into the issue of Nazi flight in the years after the war. All of this newly available information has made possible, for the first time, a comprehensive account of ecclesiastical aid given to escaping Nazis. With amazing energy and attention to both detail and scope, Steinacher has scoured the available archives; he also interviewed many, including people close to Hudal. The story he tells in Nazis on the Run: How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice (Oxford University Press, 400 pages) is as riveting as any novel but far, far more troubling.

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The key escape route for former officers—the “Nazi bolt-hole”—was through South Tyrol and then through the Italian port of Genoa. In the recent, impressively researched History vs. Apologetics: The Holocaust, the Third Reich, and the Catholic Church (Lexington Books, 510 pages), David Cymet observes that the Archbishop of Genoa, Giuseppe Cardinal Siri (1906–1989), with the help of Hudal and a Croatian priest named Krunoslav Stjepan Draganovic, aided in establishing the escape hatch in his own diocese. Siri also established the transparently named “National Committee for Emigration to Argentina.” It was (as Cymet points out) Argentina that would become the main haven for Axis criminals and operatives. At a time when Jews in DP camps were being denied visas, Juan Perón’s agents were combing Europe for Nazi collaborators to rescue.1

The Catholic priests and prelates who helped spring the Nazi bolt-hole were part of an organization called the Vatican Relief Commission (Pontificia Commissione di Assistenza, or PCA). They supplied invaluable, indeed crucial aid in sheltering Nazi war criminals, SS men, and ordinary Nazis. Steinacher tells us that the PCA viewed itself as a sort of papal mercy program for National Socialists and Fascists. The most stunning, and well-supported, claim in Steinacher’s book is that enthusiasm for the general mission of the PCA went to the very top of the Vatican hierarchy. “Pope Pius XII supported this aid organization wholeheartedly,” Steinacher reports, adding that it became “something like the Pope’s pet project,” though he is cautious about saying exactly how much the pope knew regarding the illicit activities of the PCA. We should be similarly cautious. Paris lawyer and Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld and his wife admitted that “the Pope definitely didn’t give an order, ‘we’ve got to help German criminals’” but “probably had a place in his heart for the enemies of Communists.”

Still, his housekeeper, Sister Pascalina, the German nun who had also served as his secretary from his period as nuncio in Germany in 1917 to his death in 1958, and who even played a role in establishing and organizing papal “charities,” spoke glowingly of the pontiff’s passion for the project. “How enthusiastic Pius was” when the man who was eventually to run it, Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, proposed that it be called the “Pontifical Aid Commission.” The modest beginnings of the PCA, Sister Pascalina said in her memoirs, were ideal, as they corresponded with the pontiff’s heretofore unknown “inclination to do good in secret.” Helping him in his clandestine activities was Monsignor Montini, undersecretary in the Vatican’s Secretary of State Office (in other words, the number-two man in the Secretariat) and the future Pope Paul VI. Montini informs us that it was brought into existence to bring the pope’s Christian charity to those who needed it. Tellingly, he adds that Pius XII wished to “ease the misery of his beloved German people,” though, crucially, Steinacher notes, “even if he liked Germans, it didn’t necessarily mean he was pro-Nazi.” And yet he reports that the pope favored an “extensive amnesty” for war criminals. For his part, Montini simply lacked sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust. He had, Steinacher tells us, no interest in Christian-Jewish reconciliation. And “he even seemed to have expressed doubts about the extent of the genocide.”

Working closely with the Red Cross, the PCA would issue the crucial letters of recommendation for those seeking travel documents. The Red Cross, the organization that supplied the critical documents, was overwhelmed with the sheer number of POWs and the larger humanitarian emergency. As a result, it never screened those seeking travel documents. One needed only supply his name and a letter of recommendation to fall into the welcoming arms of President Perón and Argentina. But where to find such a letter? In most cases, some priest or bishop like Hudal would write one. The South Tyrol, then, was the all-important escape hatch for Nazi criminals, and it was Catholic priests and prelates who held the key to it.

Funding was, of course, crucial, and Steinacher establishes its source. As the Vatican bank was the only source of foreign currency, the Jesuit priest Burkhart Schneider suggests, “the refugee funds almost had to go through it.” But what was the source of the Vatican funds? Steinacher’s brilliant sleuthing traces the generous funding of the PCA back to the American Catholic Church and particularly to the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC) and its bishops, who arranged relief committees and other activities to generate funds. By far the most influential figure of the NCWC was the redoubtable archbishop of New York, Cardinal Francis Spellman. A close confidant of the pope, who had worked with him earlier in the Papal Secretariat of State (when as Eugenio Pacelli, Pius had served as nuncio and secretary of state), Spellman owed the pontiff for a boost up the ecclesiastical career ladder. This debt he paid back with munificent contributions to the organization that would free Pacelli’s beloved Germans. Once dubbed “by far the greatest business head the Church has ever had in America,” a bishop who had turned his see, financially, into a “flourishing enterprise,” Spellman directed the flow of money from the United States into the Vatican coffers. Montini, head of the PCA, would, after becoming pope, always remember that most of the funds for his “relief organization” came from the U.S. Catholic Church.

Unquestionably, innocent refugees were among those who received aid. Yet, that there were undoubtedly Nazi collaborators among these did not seem to trouble some of the most powerful prelates at the Vatican and in America, even though the relief committees in Italy knew very well the criminal and even villainous backgrounds of those to whom they offered the pope’s Christian charity. Classical anti-Semitism goes a long way to explaining their indifference. The American Monsignor Edward J. Killion suggested that it was the “Jews who were stirring trouble with accusations that there were many Nazi collaborators among the refugees.” Domenico Tardini, who was essentially a co-secretary of state with Montini, and the notoriously anti-Semitic American bishop Aloisius Muench, pressed vigorously for amnesty for war criminals in the postwar years. Muench, who alleged that it was the Jews themselves who were responsible for anti-Semitism, bristled when Jewish organizations resisted. Why? Because it would preserve “a spirit of vindictiveness” at odds with the peace and prosperity to which the postwar church aspired.

That these statements were made in the wake of so devastating a tragedy for European Jews is—what are the words? Obscene? Grossly unfeeling? Language cannot capture the depths of it, a moral turpitude intensified and, if possible, made uglier by the fact that the men uttering such obscenities were bishops and cardinals of the Catholic Church.

Surely the most egregious violator of the sacred obligation to which he had pledged himself was Bishop Alois Hudal. His escape network was one of the most active and delivered some of the most villainous Nazi war criminals from justice and onward to South America. When Hitler rose to power, Hudal vowed to be his “servant and herald abroad.” In his eyes, the Church was a natural ally of Nazi Germany. Did not both prize the “principle of leadership”? In 1937, he wrote a book analyzing the intellectual foundations of the Nazi movement in order to paint National Socialism as a Christian movement pitted against the Red Menace and Jews. Pope Pius XI by then, as his health declined, had grave reservations about the Nazi regime and vigorously protested its racial policy.2 He remarked to Hudal, “That’s the first mistake; there is no intellect in this movement.” Cheerfully ignoring the courageous pope, Hudal continued to view himself as a bridge-builder between Catholicism and National Socialism.

Like Hitler, Hudal was an Austrian, and, also like the Führer, he defined his world by German nationalism. Cordially “he hated the Jews,” according to a former confidant. He attacked the “predominance” of Jews in academic posts. Approving of the Nuremberg Laws, he argued that a country could protect itself against a “deluge of foreign elements.” Cymet notes that Hudal understood his work to be that of every “true Christian.” Hudal contrasted his Christian “charity” with the supposed Jewish proclivity for vengeance: “To help people without thinking of the consequences, working selflessly and with determination, was naturally what should have been expected of a true Christian. We do not believe in the eye for an eye of the Jew.”

Not surprisingly, the Anima seminary became a hub for Nazis on the run. According to Steinacher, “four to five Nazi refugees were always hiding with Hudal at the Anima.” This was an open secret in Rome. Joseph Prader, a church secretary in Rome who was often at the Anima, admits that, after 1945, he and Hudal assisted those whom they knew to be prominent National Socialists. He acknowledges now that they issued to these men “letters of recommendation by the dozen.” Cymet adds: “A report of the German Agency Nord Press on December 6, 1949, indicates that by the end of 1949 Hudal was receiving from 60 to 100 Germans daily in Rome who were helped with tickets and visas to Latin America.”

More troubling, Hudal’s work was given high-level sanction at the Vatican. In 1949, Montini, on behalf of the secretary of state, sent Hudal 30,000 lire. This was “extraordinary support that the Holy Father is generously minded to give to the Austrians.” Montini concluded by saying, “the pope blesses Hudal’s work.” At the time, Hudal was asking Perón for 5,000 visas for German and Austrian National Socialists and even Waffen-SS men. The CIA reported in 1953 that Hudal had become known as the “Brown Bishop” because of his “marked sympathy for the Nazi movement.” Naturally, former Nazis were overwhelmed with gratitude, often expressed to Hudal, for allowing them to “make the leap to South America.”

Among the men aided by Catholic prelates, diplomats, and priests, and supported by papal funding, was not only Stangl but Auschwitz “doctor” Josef Mengele, who was already wanted (according to a contemporary warrant) for “mass murder and other crimes.” He had managed to disguise himself as a Wehrmacht private, fled Auschwitz as the Red Army approached, and made his way to South America with the help of Tyrolean people-smugglers. Adolf Eichmann, the SS Lieutenant Colonel and the principal organizer of the Holocaust, was another. On his way to the South Tyrol, Eichmann actually encountered a group of Jews on their way to Palestine, along the Brenner Pass. Among the others who would be delivered from justice, at least temporarily by the PSA, were Erich Priebke, who had led the Adreatine Caves massacre in which hundreds of Romans were wantonly and mistakenly slaughtered; Gerhard Bohne, who led the Nazi euthanasia program; and Klaus Barbie, the “butcher of Lyon.”

Both Steinacher and Cymet emphasize that not only Germans and Austrians were aided by the Catholic organizers of the so-called rat-line. Cymet estimates that some 30,000 Croatian Ustashis and roughly a similar number of Slovak Hlinkas—nominal Catholics all—were hurried along the rat-line with the help of Catholic clerics. Like Hudal, the Croatian Father Krunoslav Draganovic set up his national seminary in Rome, the Pontifical College of San Girolamo degli Illirici, as a haven for Croatian war criminals. In fact, Ante Pavelic, who ran the Nazi puppet state in Croatia during the war, also made his way through the Pontifical College to Argentina (he died in Spain after an unsuccessful attempt on his life). An American intelligence report filed in 1947 explains why Pavelic was never extradited: “Pavelic’s contacts are so high and his present position so compromising to the Vatican that any extradition of Subject will deal a staggering blow to the Roman Catholic Church.”

This was the man who, not without the help of gun-toting Franciscans, led a criminal campaign during his rule in Croatia against all those he deemed enemies, including Jews, Serbs, Roma, Sinti, and Croats who were not, as he was, Fascist.

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Steinacher is not much interested in the controversial issues surrounding Pius XII, but Cymet emphatically is. He is also quite angry with Pius’s defenders. Indeed, the title of his book, History vs. Apologetics, says it all. What Pius’s defenders are doing, in Cymet’s view, can be classified as apologetics, in the cruder sense of the word. But Cymet goes much further in his criticism of the untruths and deception expressed in the writings of those who would vindicate Pius XII:

Unlike their not-so-distant cousins the Holocaust deniers—[Pius’s defenders do] not claim that the Holocaust never happened, but rather chose [sic] to take cover behind half-truths, misrepresentations and subtle distortions. At the margin of legitimate discussion beholden to historical truth, the defenders…aim at derailing the discussion by creating a thick cloud of confusion and doubt.

Cousins of Holocaust-deniers? That’s quite harsh. But Cymet thinks it is true, and he has grounds for making so damning a charge. This is because he examines, in detail never seen before, the postwar record of Pius in his dealing with war criminals and Jews desperately attempting to locate lost family members, especially their children.

Cymet finds it reprehensible, first of all, that Pius, who acted neutrally during the war and never intervened vigorously on behalf of victims of the Shoah, actually sought leniency after the war for Einsatzgruppen and death-camp commanders. According to the private diaries of Muench, who was his personal representative in occupied Germany, Pius sought pardons for Einsatzkommando Otto Ohlendor, a close associate of Himmler. Cymet rightly calls this “one of the saddest chapters of his postwar activities.” Some of his efforts, in concert with those of German bishops, resulted in the commutation of sentences of those convicted of war crimes. Even the rank anti-Semite Muench advised Montini and the Holy See to desist from such interventions, not because they were on their face immoral and inappropriate for custodians of the moral law. Rather, he feared that if they were made public, they could sully the reputation of the Vatican.

The second issue was Pius’s heartless intransigence in preventing Jewish war orphans, many of whom had been baptized for protection (and many, less nobly, for the purpose of being saved in a religious sense), from being released from Catholic institutions and individuals after the war’s end. In stories that appallingly resemble the heartbreaking case from the 19th century of Edgardo Mortara,3 we hear, to our amazement, Pius’s refusing to allow any child who had been baptized to return to his Jewish parents or to parties who “had no right to them”—that is, to Jewish organizations requesting the care of these children. One can only imagine the bottomless grief of the parents, who had, against all hope, survived atrocity themselves only to learn that their miraculously surviving child would not be returned to them. In perhaps the most insensitive statement on this issue, the archbishop of Lyon declared that the church “was a Mother, too,” and thus solicitous of her children. Once a child had been baptized, the Holy See had determined, he could never be returned.

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We are indebted to Steinacher and Cymet for bringing this shameful record to the light of day. As is now painfully obvious, some figures at the very top of the Catholic Church in the postwar years cared more about the perpetrators of atrocity than their countless victims. Hardly a priest can be identified in the PCA who was his Jewish brother’s keeper. For the mortal sins of its priests, for the monstrous evil of which they were guilty in collaborating with Nazi malefactors, the Church will bear an ugly blemish, one that no amount of extenuation or special pleading can erase.

1 The South Tyrol was territorially, ethnically, and in other respects ill-defined and thus ideal for hiding war criminals (sometimes for years), procuring travel funds, and acquiring new identification papers. This was so because the border region between Germany and Italy was inhabited by a population whose legal status would not be resolved for years and most of whom spoke German. In addition, by contrast with northern cities like Hamburg and other port cities in Germany, where the Allies rigorously monitored overseas travel, South Tyrol had been vacated by U.S. troops since 1945. There were thus no military controls on travel in the region. According to Cymet, that allowed Siri and colleagues to establish—at the Genoa train station—Vatican relief aid and a chapter of the charitable organization Caritas Croatia, here being used for illicit purposes. The Croatians were well aware that they were not being monitored and that the criminal refugee operation was not being watched. Finally, there is simple geography. For a German or Austrian in southern Germany, Genoa was the closest seaport.

2 See “Two Popes, One Holocaust” by Kevin J. Madigan, in the December 2010 issue of Commentary.

3 See The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara by David I. Kertzer